Club Alabam Was The Center Of LA's Jazz Scene In The 1930s And '40s
At Club Alabam, the daytime was just a warmup for the night. All through the afternoon and the evening, the legendary nightclub, located at 4215 Central Avenue, was a hub of hardworking hoofers and musicians rehearsing for the nightly floor show. "[The] famed mecca ... is a veritable beehive of activity this week as dance directors put prancing chorines through their paces and band leaders urge musical aggregations to pick up on the latest organizations," the Los Angeles Sentinel, the city's most influential black newspaper, reported in 1940.
Late at night, all the hard work finally paid off. Musicians and singers such as Billie Holiday, T-Bone Walker, Josephine Baker, Herb Jeffries, Art Pepper, Anita O'Day and Dorothy Dandridge took the Alabam stage. They performed for integrated crowds who had come to dance to the sophisticated rhythms of big bands led by Marl Young, Johnny Otis, Lorenzo Flennoy and Gerald Wilson. The shows often featured a chorus line of "Club Alabam Cuties," flash dance teams such as the Nicholas Brothers, burlesque dancers, and comedians including Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx. After hours, the venue hosted jam sessions that lasted into the early morning.
"At its most glorious, it was kind of a shining star, the premier spot on the Avenue," says Los Angeles music historian Steve Isoardi. From 1931 to around 1953, the Club Alabam and its next door neighbor, the famed Hotel Dunbar, were the cultural heart of Central Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Black Los Angeles.
"When the sun goes down, all the flaws, and imperfections, whatever you might perceive them to be- suddenly, there's an aura of mysterious wonderfulness...there's a new special magic that comes, a type of paintbrush that paints all of the flaws. New glamour comes to life. It's almost as if special spirits of joy and abundance bring special gifts at night that are not available in the sunshine."
Curtis Mosby was an L.A. original, a slick character determined to make a name for himself in the music scene. "Mosby was a businessman and he called himself a drummer," alto saxophonist Marshal Royal recalled in Central Avenue Sounds. "He wasn't the greatest drummer in the world but as long as he owned a band, he was the drummer."
Mosby's ambition outstripped his musical talent so he turned his sights on becoming a nightlife impresario. Nicknamed "showman perfect," he preferred to be called "the Mayor of Central Avenue." He wasn't the only one.
I've heard of at least half a dozen characters who called themselves the 'Mayor of Central Avenue' including a couple of drug dealers," says writer Matthew Duersten, who's working on a book about the Los Angeles Jazz scene. "So it's basically referencing an individual with a lot of chutzpah and pomp."
During Prohibition, Mosby opened the Apex nightclub in the space that later became Club Alabam. Part jazz club and part speakeasy, the club featured a house band fronted by Lionel Hampton and performances by singer Ivie Anderson and comedian Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. In Central Avenue Sounds, musician Royal says:
"That's where the people from Hollywood and Beverly Hills came to go slumming. It was a black owned place that would have 90% white audiences. The blacks didn't have the money to spend. That was during Prohibition, and you had to hide your bottle underneath the table. The Apex would have food and set-ups. Periodically, the federals would come in, raid the whole joint and take everybody to the hoosegow."
Over the next two decades, the club would go through a bewildering series of owners and managers, closings and grand re-openings, with Curtis Mosby, who would open many other businesses, frequently acting as both manager and part-owner.
According to longtime Alabam bandleader Johnny Otis's book, Upside Your Head! Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue, the club was actually owned for a time by two Italian American brothers named Pete and Ben Rizotta. Rumors swirled that they were involved in gambling and other illegal operations, and that Mosby, along with legendary Central Avenue figure Elihu "Black Dot" McGee (who also reportedly managed the Alabam), provided them legitimacy.
"Mosby was the face of the Club Alabam, so even though he was from the 'sporting life,' even though he was kind of a character, the club's owners... basically picked the right guy, because he still had respect on the avenue. So even though he was kind of a shady character, it was a shadiness that people could identify with," Duersten says.
Whatever the underworld implications, by the early 1930s, according to Central Avenue Sounds, the Alabam employed approximately 100 Black Angelenos, with a payroll of $1500 a week. It was the heyday of the jazz scene on Central Avenue, and wealthy white patrons swathed in fur and evening gowns came to enjoy Club Alabam shows.
"During the period I was playing there, Stepin Fetchit came by with Mae West in his Rolls-Royce," trombonist Britt Woodman recalled in Central Avenue Sounds. "Everybody went out to the front door to see what's going on and that's when I first saw this car -- a yellow car too. An ordinary person, a working person really couldn't afford [Club Alabam] because it catered to people with money and the movie stars."
Besides nightly floor shows accompanied by dinners of fried chicken, Chinese food and wine, the Alabam hosted numerous events for both Black and white charities. On April 15, 1936, a bevvy of Hollywood stars put on a benefit at the club to aid the "Scottsboro Boys," nine black teens who had been falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama. Stars including James Cagney, Fredric March, Franchot Tone, Dorothy Parker and Florence Eldridge organized the benefit, which was headlined by arranger and musician Eddie Barefield.
You never knew who you would see at the Club Alabam. One night in 1937, Duke Ellington and Ethel Waters dropped in with separate entourages. There was also an annual drag ball, hosted by "inimitable master of ceremonies" Bill Heflin. As the Los Angeles Sentinel reported in 1940: "Women impersonators come into the Halloween picture in a big way tonight at the Club Alabam, which will be the scene of a colorful drag ball. Gorgeous costumes will be displayed by models who know how to wear them."
That same year, the newspaper reported on one particularly hot night at the "ultra-swank" club:
"The torrid dance tunes played by Peppy Prince's noted orchestra... [produce] punishing music on the hot feet of the scores of jitterbug dancers. This long and tall music maestro has a knack of quickly turning his indigo tunes into the soft dulcet number that makes dancing heaven for the smooth style of fox trotters."
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According to historian and author Robert Lee Johnson, the club also benefited from its close proximity to the Dunbar Hotel, which catered to famous Black entertainers. "Being next to the Dunbar was also important. They would perform for free right there at the Club Alabam because, you know, they're staying at the Dunbar. So after-hours really became the thing," he says.
The impromptu late-night jam sessions, so different from the carefully choreographed floor shows, drew folks from all over Los Angeles, according to drummer William Douglass in Central Avenue Sounds:
"The Club Alabam was where everybody went when they left their Hollywood jobs, Beverly Hills jobs and whatnot. Around about 2 a.m., everybody came from all over everywhere and they always gathered right in the Club Alabam. The show would always run late, and then it just seemed like they did that just because everybody was coming over there, not only the musicians and whatnot, but the crowds."
Bandleader Johnny Otis, whose band was often compared to Count Basie, served long stints as the head of the Alabam's house band. At the bar, beautiful women like Miss Bronze America Selena Rudd played hostess, pulling in "as many customers as the television machine on fight night." Vivacious dancer Marie Bryant (also a choreographer and dance coach who worked with Gene Kelly and Ava Gardner) performed frequently, and many of the shows were choreographed by legendary lindy-hopper Norma Miller, who also graced the "floor board with... fit, vit and enthusiasm," according to the Los Angeles Sentinel.
The club's all-female band, International Sweethearts of Rhythm, was "the hottest attraction to hit the coast since the Frisco fire," according to California Eagle columnist J.T. Gipson. "Speaking purely from a serious point of view, the girls, without a doubt, have one of the finest musical aggregations to come out of the swing kingdom in many a moon."
One member of the group, trumpeter and Central Avenue legend Clora Bryant, recalled the perils of working for Curtis Mosby: "He was a little crooked. He owed a lot of people money. They'd pay you under the table. Finally, the union got after him, so you'd have to go to the union to collect your money. He'd pay you the right money on the union check. But then you'd have to come back down there and kick back some money. They finally caught him and put him in jail for taxes, I think it was. He still owed me," she said in Central Avenue Sounds.
"Once we were playing behind Al Hibbler, the blind singer... and pay night came. Mosby was farting around and wasn't showing up or was behind the bar fiddling around again. And Al Hibbler said, 'You dirty MF. You'd better give me my money or I'll shoot you,' he says. 'Say something so I'll know where you are.' I mean Al Hibbler was serious. He couldn't see but he didn't take no shit... We got our money that week."
After a series of disputes over management and ownership, the space was christened the New Club Alabam around 1947. It was then taken over by the kindly Bill Heflin and his handsome brother, Leon, who put on momentous dance and theater productions as well as L.A.'s famous Cavalcade of Jazz, the first large-scale, African-American produced outdoor music festival in the United States. It ran from 1945 to 1958 and featured Sam Cooke, Dinah Washington and Count Basie, among many other performers.
The Heflin brothers renamed the space the Club Congo and attempted to run the business fairly. "He paid the artists very well," Leon's granddaughter Deborah Heflin Swan says. "You know, when you read about that time period about the artists, they always feel like they were getting cheated for their payments, but my grandfather always paid them good."
By 1949, the showplace was, once again, being called the Club Alabam. In 1952, it hosted Billie Holiday for a series of shows. Clora Bryant recalled the singer babysitting Bryant's young daughter backstage, her long gloves covering the track marks from heroin use.
By then, Central Avenue's glory days were already waning, although the reasons for that depend on who you ask.
According to Johnson, the police began to crack down after the 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, aka the Black Dahlia. Authorities believed she had been on Central Avenue shortly before her murder. "Now you're getting the raids. Instead of the police just taking the payoff and going about their business, now they're raiding the clubs," Johnson says.
According to Duersten, various photos of race-mixing celebrities in local nightlife and gossip rags -- including one taken at the Alabam of white movie star Lana Turner ogling Black singer Billy Eckstine -- infuriated the local powers-that-be and contributed to the LAPD's crackdown on the club.
In 1950, William Parker became chief of the LAPD and the crackdown on Central Avenue's nightlife continued. A strong opponent of "race mixing," Parker, according to KCET, made it his mission to shut down musical venues and bars that welcomed both Black and white Angelenos. On Central Avenue, that meant LAPD officers would harass nightclubs, stripping them of their licenses.
"There was a notorious incident [in 1952] where the blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon had played the Alabam, walked out of the club and the cops nailed him right there," Duersten says. "They brought him to the Newton Street Station and they beat him and kept him overnight."
Changing demographics may have also played a role in the Alabam's decline. After the Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that racially restrictive covenants were unconstitutional, many Black middle and working class people began to move away from Central Avenue and into neighborhoods previously forbidden to them. Black bands increasingly began to play in clubs around the city and Black musicians found more work in recording studios and on film scores.
It's not clear exactly when or why the Club Alabam closed, but by 1953 all mentions of it in local papers had ceased. However, its legend lives on through the countless performers who graced its stage and, in doing so, helped create modern jazz, swing, bebop and rhythm and blues.
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